Having recently completed 6 days of the Tour du Mont Blanc I can honestly say it is one of the most enjoyable, exhilarating and worthwhile experiences I have ever had. I am already planning how I can go back next year to do the full circuit!
Here is my day by day account of our trek in the Alps.
Day 1 – Courmayeur to Refugio Bonatti via Mont de la Saxe
Having arrived late into Chamonix the previous evening, due to a 2 hour delay at Gatwick, we were all a little bit bleary eyed as we appeared for breakfast at 7am at the wonderfully carpeted (even the lift doors were carpeted!) Ponte Isabelle Hotel. You could sense the nervousness of our tour guide Phil, knowing that he had to get a group of 14 people he had only met the night before up, fed, dressed and out with full kit in time to catch a public bus at 8am from in front of Chamonix train station.
With this first hurdle successfully negotiated the bus departed Chamonix with all 14 of our group, plus our 2 tour guides (Phil and Emily), on board. After 40 minutes we were dropped off just on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel, in the lovely Italian town of Courmayeur.
After a quick briefing from Phil and Emily, a few last minute adjustments to boots and rucksacks and of course the obligatory group photo, we set off full of excitement. The weather was glorious with a stunning blue sky and as we headed out of town the walking was very pleasant along a little lane, which we soon turned off onto a footpath and the first uphill of the trek.
The first part of the climb took us through a wooded area and the humidity was pretty high. It was only 10am but the sweat was pouring already. The colours were stunning and as you started to get higher you got the occasional glimpse through the trees to views that can only be described as breathtaking.
Phil had promised the first rest stop of the day would be for coffee at the Refugio Bertone. Situated at an elevation of 2000m above sea level, we had already climbed 750m by the time we reached it. The views over the valley and Courmayeur below were spectacular and helped you appreciate just how far you had already climbed. The Italians certainly know how to do coffee – even on top of a mountain!
We set off again after a cheekly little block of good old Kendal Mint Cake for energy and continued to climb towards the ridge line above Val Ferret, which would be our stop for lunch about an hour later with stunning views over the Grandes Jorasses.
After lunch we kept ascending, albeit at a much gentler incline, along the ridge line of Mont de la Saxe before reaching another sharp little incline which took us up to the high point of the day, the Tete de la Tronche at 2584m.
The descent from this point took us over the Col Sapin and was fairly steep. Most of the group certainly felt their knees as we started to lose height. When we re-grouped a bit lower down Phil took the opportunity to speak to us all about the accomodation for the evening and offer some advice on what to do when we reached the refuge. In my head this meant that we must be nearly there, maybe an hour or so more of walking. In truth it turned out to be nearly 3 hours as we had to climb over another Col back up at 2500m! I seem to remember Phil even remarking at one point ‘It’s a bit further than I remember!’
This was certainly a tough day of walking and as we headed down from the Col, knowing that the refuge was still a good hour away, it was a case of head down and plod on. A couple of us towards the front spotted a building some way off in the distance and thinking this must be the refuge picked the pace up. I guess a lot of people make this mistake as there is a very handy signpost positioned next to this building showing an arrow pointing past it with the words ‘Refugio Bonatti 15 minutes’.
Ok, nearly there then but the refuge still wasn’t in sight. Everyones legs were aching by now and most couldn’t wait to get their boots off. It was nearly 6pm as the refuge came into sight and it was a sight that was very welcome indeed. Not a mountain hut as had been expected, but an amazing hostel with possibly the best beer terrace I have ever seen!
Day 2 – Refugio Bonatti to La Fouly via the Grand Col Ferret
I woke up early on the second day and not wanting to disturb anyone in the dorm headed outside for some fresh air. It was about 5:30am and barely light but still breathtakingly stunning and very tranquil. Seeing the sun rise and light up the top of Mont Blanc in a golden glow was definitely one of the highlights for me.
After a nice breakfast of bread, cheese, jam and coffee it was time to put the boots back on and get ready to head off. The feet felt pretty good and most of the group seemed to be holding up well after what was a tough first day walking. Emily was going to lead the second day and so she set off leading us back up the track we came down the previous evening to pick up a trail that traversed along the mountainside, keeping our height above the valley. Again the weather was perfect and the sky was bright blue without a cloud in sight. This made for a nice comfortable start to the day and we made good progress, even traversing across a couple of snow and ice fields.
After a couple of hours of very pleasant walking we dropped down into the valley bottom where it was time to regroup before starting the main ascent of the day.
Again our first coffee stop of the day was at a mountain refuge. This time Refugio Elena at an elevation of 2061m provided the perfect rest spot and another fantastic cup of Italian espresso before we set off toward to summit of the Grand Col Ferret.
Again it was incredibly hot and we had reapplied our ‘once-a-day’ sun cream on a couple of occasions. As we started the climb from the refuge it was about midday and the sweat was pouring off. I had already got through the 2 litres of water I was carrying in my rucksack bladder and so a handy trough with fresh mountain water pouring into it provided the perfect opportunity to catch my breath and refill with ice cold water.
The climbing was exhilarating and I felt really good as we pushed up to the top of the Grand Col Ferret which, at 2537m, marked the border between Italy and Switzerland and our high point of the day. This was also a great place to stop for lunch and what a lunch it was too. The Bonatti ‘pic-nic’ included 2 ham and cheese rolls, a panettone and a Bonatti branded slab of 65% cocoa dark chocolate. Oh yeah, and some fruit!
After lunch the group were all in good spirits knowing that we had done the big climb for the day and that it was all down hill. The drop down from the Grand Col Ferret was fairly steady and made for quite easy walking with just 1 or 2 little snow sections to negotiate. It wasn’t long before we reached a little Swiss refreshment stop where it was time to re-fill with water again.
The usual route of the Tour du Mont Blanc drops down from this point at La Peula to a little lane that passes through the tiny hamlet of Ferret but Emily said that she knew a ‘cheeky jib’ that would be a much nicer route. Indeed it was, traversing around the side of the hill above Ferret was lovely until we got to the point where the path descended to the river. Wow it was steep! Whilst my legs felt ok, my toes took a bit of a hammering, quite literally as they were constantly slammed into the front of my boots! Thankfully it was quite a short descent before a gentle stroll into La Fouly and another well earned beer.
Day 3 – La Fouly to Champex
We had arrived into La Fouly quite early the previous afternoon which had given everyone the chance to rest and enjoy the evening. After stretch club™ and a delicious raclette for dinner (What, no meat Lily?) I had slept really well and felt really good the next morning. I felt even better after the slightly surreal experience of being served breakfast by Keith Lemon. Phil had made sure we were all ready by 8am and we set off shortly afterwards, with Phil taking the lead again.
After 2 solid days of mountain walking, day 3 offered a bit of respite with no major climbs. The first part of the day was lovely and the route mainly followed the river passing through woodland and meadows. The Swiss scenery was beautiful and again the weather was kind to us with blue sky and sunshine the order of the day.
Before long we found ourselves passing through the lovely little village of Praz de Fort, with its traditional wooden houses. It seemed completely un touched by the modern world, save for the Spin bike that we came across outside one of the houses!
The group were in good spirits and we were covering the distance pretty quickly. We stopped for a coffee break at a little cafe in Issert and everyone seemed very relaxed. It was only 11am but we had already done about three quarters of the distance for the day.
So after coffee we set off again, beginning the short climb through woodland towards Champex. I think we had only been walking for about 30 minutes when Phil called lunch. We had only just had a break but I suspect he knew that we were going to arrive in Champex very early, a point that was re-inforced after lunch when Phil, who was enjoying a leisurely break, received a ‘5 minute warning’ from Nic to get moving. A complete reversal from the previous couple of days!
Sure enough it was only a short stroll into Champex and we arrived around 1:30pm, only to find that the reception for our hotel opened at 4pm! Oh well, time for a beer by the lake in the sun then.
It was good to have an easier day and the early arrival time also allowed us to wash some rather smelly kit and freshen up. Stretch Club™ on a small wooden bridge over the lake was a highlight where even the local wildlife joined in.
After another 3 course dinner and some pretty good hot chocolates, Phil called a briefing in the lounge. Day 4 offered us 2 alternatives for our route, dependant upon weather and the condition of the group at this point. With the weather being so good and the forecast for the next day much the same, it was decided that we would tackle the more challenging option of the Fenetre d’Arpette. Phil and Emily were confident that we were very capable of taking this route but wanted to talk us through it first and then give us the opportunity to share any concerns we may have. My favourite question undoubtedly came from Lily – ‘Has anyone ever died doing this route?’ I can’t remember Phil’s exact response but it was along the lines of ‘I’m sure they have!’
So, with a good night’s rest needed it was time for bed.
Day 4 – Champex to Trient via the Fenetre d’Arpette
Without a doubt day 4 proved to be one of the best days of walking I have ever done. Emily had tried to describe it the previous evening by pressing her fingertips together and explained that it started off quite gently and then got steeper and steeper up to the summit, which was then mirrored on the descent.
We set off from Champex just after 8am and quickly left the road to pick up a path through woodland that followed the route of a mountain irrigation channel. Steadily climbing up through the woods we soon cleared the tree line and it wasn’t long before we got our first view of the Fenetre, high up above!
True to Emily’s word the path got steeper, and steeper and steeper. Everyone was making good progress but we were glad of a break when we stopped for a little rest. Phil explained that the next section was a little more tricky as we were about to cross a boulder field. This was thoroughly enjoyable. Rather than just following a trail you had to pick a path and hop from boulder to boulder. This was great fun and a good test of fitness but with 3 good days of walking already behind us we negotiated it fairly comfortably.
The route kept on climbing and as we got up to the snow line we came across a large snow field and although it was steep it had been well walked already. There were plenty of foot holes to follow but I was still a little nervous crossing it, not knowing what lay beneath, and made sure to kick the edges of my boots in. I was keen to keep going but Phil was trying to keep the group close together at this point. It felt a bit uncomfortable stopping on the snow, especially as there were a few crazy Swiss and Italians skidding down at speed. I felt a bit like a bowling pin waiting to be taken out. Then Lily demonstrated what it would be like if we were taken out as she lost her footing and face planted into the snow!
Once across the snow it was a very sharp climb up a path that zig zagged to the top, the highest point on our entire trek at 2665m. The view that greeted us from the top can only be described as spectacular. You could see for miles in the direction we had just come and over the other side you were looking down onto the Glacier du Trient with amazing views of the Mont Blanc Massif.
We spent quite a while at the top, taking in the views, grabbing lunch and a few group photos. When we got going again the drop down was extremely steep to begin with, but thankfully there wasn’t any snow. We lost height very quickly but the valley floor below didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
There were a couple of tricky bits to cope with on the descent, including a chain fixed in place to allow you to walk down the face of a boulder but eventually the path started to ease in gradient.
The forecast had suggested that there was a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon and, upon seeing some rather large clouds form in the distance, we picked up the pace as we reached le Trient river at the bottom of the valley.
As we pushed on along the path, which was fairly flat by now, the clouds started to come over. We had reached a signpost for Trient when we felt the first drops of rain and all raced to put our waterproofs on. It turned out that this was a little premature and the rain never quite came.
I hadn’t noticed that the path had kept its height as the valley floor dropped below. So as we turned off the main track to pick up a footpath into Trient I was surprised by the steepness of the last descent into the village, accompanied by the increasingly loud Texas Chainsaw Massacre sound effects! Freaky.
We arrived into Trient just before 6pm after a fantastic day of walking and just in time too. 30 minutes later the storm finally came and we watched it pour down from inside the Auberge du Mont-Blanc!
Day 5 – Trient to Tre Le Champs via the Col de Balme
After the standard bread and jam breakfast with a coffee we were kitted up and ready to go by 8am. By now we were like professional athletes and even though the previous day had been a big day, providing some of the most challenging walking, the group were in good shape.
Phil and Emily explained that we had an ‘up and over day today’, with a steady climb of about 1000 metres to the top of Col de Balme and the border between Switzerland and France. Emily was back in charge today, leading from the front.
We set off and, after watching a group of American school children disturb the peace of this sleepy hamlet with a bizarre song and dance routine that we recognised from the top of Grand col Ferret on day 2, soon turned off the road and started the climb.
The route took us along a well walked path that ascended sharply and zig-zagged its way through the woods. Again the humidity was high in the trees and although the sweat was pouring off my nose I felt really good and got into a steady pace quite quickly, with Neale for company who had transformed into some kind of mountain athlete between days 2 and 3!
A particular highlight, although Nicola has this down as a low point for some reason, was a full group rendition of Happy Birthday as she stopped for a ‘comfort break’ behind a tree.
Eager to get going again, Emily asked Neale and I not to go on too far ahead and to stop for a break at about 11:15am to allow everyone to re-group. We pushed on and soon cleared the tree line with the path becoming a little more stoney and un-even, but nothing like the previous day.
By 11:15 the refuge that marked out the top of Col de Balme was in sight and we stopped by a signpost that indicated it was a further 30 minutes of walking. After a quick pit stop that let everyone catch up, I set Neale a challenge to get to the top in 20 minutes rather than 30, so we set off at a pace and actually reached the Refuge du Col de Balme at 2190m elevation 16 minutes later. Well done Neale!! We were greeted yet again by spectacular views and the first sight of our end goal – Chamonix in the valley below.
The customer service at the refuge carries a reputation and not necessarily for the right reasons! I went inside to order a coffee and there were a couple of people in front who had just received theirs from the little old lady that runs the place. It was hilarious when their request for a spoon to stir their coffee was greeted by a loud tut, followed by her stomping off into the kitchen whilst muttering under her breath, only to return and throw 2 spoons onto the tray with a shrug! Priceless.
After dropping off the top a short way, which was quite a gentle descent, Emily took us on a path that led to the top of l’Aiguillettes des Posettes at 2199m where we stopped for lunch.
After lunch it was quite an easy descent into our stop for the evening, the tiny little hamlet of Tre-le-Champ and the amazing Auberge la Boerne. We had pushed on quite well on this day so it was a joy to arrive into Tre-le- Champ before 3pm and see the ‘beer garden’ bathed in sunshine. Let the birthday celebrations begin and cue the birthday sausage!
Day 6 – Tre-le-Champ to Chamonix via Lac Blanc
After a fun evening with great food and a good night’s sleep we gathered outside with boots and bags on, ready to begin the final day of the trek. Today’s route was described by Phil as a big climb up to Lac Blanc, steeper and tougher than the previous day, before a good descent into Chamonix. So not an easy final day then!
Indeed the climb was one of the most enjoyable of the whole 6 days. Feeling pretty mountain fit by this stage I pushed on as I love the uphill bits, but this was certainly a steep climb and it just kept going and going! By 10am we were already up at about 2000m having done the steepest part of the climb and as ever the scenery was spectacular.
The gradient started to ease up a bit and we carried on walking until just before 11am when we stopped to let everyone re-group. The rest point provided us with amazing views over the Mont Blanc Massif, including stunning views of the Argentiere Glacier and the Mer de Glace. You could tell how fit everyone was feeling as instead of resting, we took loads of photos of people jumping in front of this incredible back drop.
Lunch would be taken at Lac Blanc where there is another very handy Refuge. We set off to finish the last 300m of ascent, which included climbing a rusty ladder bolted into a large slab of rock at one point, and arrived at the aptly named lake, surrounded as it was on all sides by snow. We rested at our high point of the day at 2352m, enjoying the enormous hot chocolate served by the Refuge and watching some crazy people descend down a snow field way up above us.
Setting off after lunch we knew that it was all down hill into Chamonix, our final destination on the trek. This descent felt much easier and although it was quite rocky I found myself being far less cautious and leaping from one boulder to another. It wasn’t long before we picked up a wide track that turned out to be a piste. I think Phil thought this was a little boring so decided to cut the corner by taking us on a scramble across a boulder field!
Shortly after this we arrived at La Flegere cable car station where we were greeted by Emily and 3 of the group who had taken a lower traverse to this point, rather than climb to Lac Blanc. They had decided to take the cable car down the last descent to look after their knees and feet, and after seeing some of the blisters I’ve got to agree it was probably the right decision!
Those of us that walked down the rest of the way set off with Emily’s words ringing in our ears ‘If I was running from here it would take me about 40minutes to get down to Chamonix.’ Of course it was further than we imagined.
The route that we followed descended through La Floria with its stunning floral displays. It would have been a great place to stop for a beer and in hindsight perhaps we should have indulged ourselves, but I think we were excited about finishing and pressed on. The sun was still beating down as we arrived into Chamonix with a sense of euphoria, having completed 6 incredible days of walking and feeling on top of the world. Time to party!
Nicola and I raised just short of £9000 for Trekstock by completing this challenge and if I could sum it up it would be this:
Stunning weather, great people, incredible scenery, fantastic fun and one of the best experiences I have ever had. I want to do it again next year!